That Strange Fellow

Boris Karloff is Frankenstein’s Monster – no one’s saying he isn’t – a role he essentially invented (Mary Shelley be damned) back in 1931, when he played the title creature for director James Whale and Universal Studios.  Already in his 40s at the time, Karloff only had three at-bats as the Monster before age, infirmity and a desire to do something else compelled him to hang up his cement spreader shoes.  In HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), Karloff got to play the Mad Doctor and his creation (a role that had passed from Lon Chaney, Jr. in THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1942 to Bela Lugosi in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN the following year) was handed to Glenn Strange. Isn’t that the perfect name for someone to play the Frankenstein Monster?  Despite the singularity of that particular actor brand, Strange isn’t as well remembered as Boris Karloff yet I’d bet dollars to neck bolts that it’s Strange that most people envision as the Frankenstein monster.  In the “Shock Theatre” days, as the Universal monsters were absorbed into the culture like a fast-dissolving gelcap, the strapping actor’s take on the creature became the go-to personification for a generation of cartoonists, model kit makers, Halloween costume manufacturers and all around Frankenstein obsessives, such as yours truly.  Glenn Strange died in September 1973… yesterday would have been his 111th birthday.

Born in New Mexico in 1899, before the territory attained statehood, George Glenn Strange was a rancher, a former boxing protege of Jack Dempsey and amateur fiddler, who picked up the instrument on his own initiative at the age of 12 and taught himself to play.  A performer at country dances, he came to Hollywood 1930 as a member of a singing group, the Arizona Wranglers, who were billed as “The Greatest Cowboy Entertainers of All Time!” after a string of performances on a Phoenix radio station and tour dates through the western states.  The group were drafted into a run of inexpensive westerns, including RIDERS OF THE DESERT (Sono-Arts, 1932) with Bob Steel, STORMY (Universal, 1935) and WESTWARD HO! (Republic, 1935) and LAWLESS RANGE (Republic, 1935) with John Wayne.  The membership changed through this time, while the group was billed alternatively as The Range Riders, The Singing Riders, The Radio Buckaroos and simply the Wranglers.  Strange also appeared on his own in horse operas, beginning with uncredited bits in a few Hoot Gibson vehicles. The 6’3″ Strange was often billed with a nickname… “Pee-Wee,” an ironic term of endearment that dates back to his days as a rodeo rider.  Strange’s Irish-Cherokee blood and craggy, intimidating appearance made him a natural for villain roles but he often had cowboy hero Dick Foran’s back, too, in a run of oaters at Warner Brothers and played another nice guy role as the truck driver buddy of Buster Crabbe, who turns to amateur boxing to make some dough in THE CONTENDER (1944).  In later years, Strange would have a recurring role as a bartender on the long-running weekly western GUNSMOKE, hired at the behest of star James Arness, who had gotten his start playing THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951).

In 1942, Strange was THE MAD MONSTER for the Poverty Row outfit PRC and director Sam Newfield.  Playing a slow-witted handyman (patterned, it would seem, after Lon Chaney, Jr.’s immortal turn as Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN) turned by dint of irresponsible since into a big overall-wearing were-person (patterned, it would seem, after Lon Chaney, Jr.’s immortal turn as THE WOLFMAN), Strange growled and prowled and did terrible things (including the killing of children!), all in a botched bid to combat Nazism with lycanthropy.  The dual role failed to open any new doors for Strange, who was plugged right back into cowboy pictures.  As the story goes, he was working on the Universal lot one day and taking his lunch in the studio commissary when make up man Jack P. Pierce approached him and offered him $25 to stay after hours for a make-up test.  Pierce covered the mirrors in front of his make up chair and went to work on Pierce, turning him into a dead ringer (kinda-sorta) for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster.  Strange only played the monster in three films: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, its 1945 sequel HOUSE OF DRACULA and in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).  Once again for Strange, it was back to westerns after these ghoulish assignments but through the decades it was Strange’s face that loomed in our collective consciousness as the Frankenstein monster.  Strange had the height and the bulk and the unusually oblong head.  The newborn coltishness with which Karloff had stamped upon the character in FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) was gone by his swan song in the role, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).  In THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942), the monster is blinded in the final frames, leaving Bela Lugosi (who assumed the role after Lon Chaney, Jr.) in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943) to stumble about sightlessly, arms out in front of him; this is the origin of the classic Frankenstein stance that MonsterKids have been imitating for over 60 years – however the final cut of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN eliminated the plot point of the monster’s blindness, which left the character in his remaining films a sort of inexplicably stiff-limbed, robotic, near-idiotic jughead, fit for little more than intimidating burgomeisters and carrying stuff. Worst yet, Strange’s Monster was often sidelined through most of the film, essentially comatose, until the big climax in which some wacky medico juiced him back into a waking state and he got to throw somebody through a plate glass window.

Your hardcore classic horror fans have more fondness for Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster than respect… but I have real love for the man.  I suspect that Strange’s tenure in the black suit and cement spreaders was my first glimpse of the Frankenstein monster, seen in my parents’ copy of the Playboy-published novelty book Teevee Jeebies, in which humorist Shel Silverstein added gag lines to scenes from classic Hollywood movies (one of them a shot of Strange, Lenore Aubert and Bela Lugosi from ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN).  I’m sure stills of Strange as Frankie caught my eye after I started reading Famous Monsters of Filmland around 1968.  I don’t think I saw Karloff the Uncanny in his career-making role until 1973 or 1974, meaning that I had half a decade at least with only Strange and Herman Munster as my man-made-man role models.  As much as I prize Karloff’s creation – the role to which I return year after year to find new things or feel newly creeped out by his truly unearthly performance as a being trapped between the living and the dead thanks to the hubris of blind science – Strange has my childhood heart.  He was the monster I could imagine being friends with, who’d pick me up and carry me if I grew tired, who’d chase back all my tormentors, who’d watch over me while I slept.  He lives in my dreams and in my memories of countless wind-up, bendable, glow-in-the-dark collectibles.  Maybe I feel such fondness s because I can relate, you know?  Before I had hair on my chest, I was 6 feet tall, had enormous feet, and was prone to my own share of interpersonal failings.  I too was stumbling.  I too felt… strange.

But anyway.  Glenn Strange.  111 yesterday.  Happy Birthday, big guy!

Glenn Strange painting courtesy and copyright of Belle Dee, 2010.

18 Responses That Strange Fellow
Posted By Bob Gutowski : September 17, 2010 4:48 pm

A sweet, lovely piece.

Posted By Bob Gutowski : September 17, 2010 4:48 pm

A sweet, lovely piece.

Posted By Richard A. Ekstedt : September 17, 2010 5:04 pm

Glenn Strange, as I understand it, played the Frankenstein Monster again opposite Abbot And Costello on the Colgate Comedy Show in a segment where Lou meets The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Also, in 1963, Glenn played the monster in writer Don Glut’s amatuer film serial “THE ADVENTURES OF THE SPIRIT”: Chapter Four-”FRANKENSTEIN’S FURY”. In the late 1950s, from Noon to Midnight, Glenn wore the makeup under a clown costume and mask was perched on the 150 foot radio mast at KTLA in LA. Listeners were given clues as who the clown was and when it was time to take the mask off, the unmasker came face to face with the Frankenstein Monster (who threw a dummy off the top of the building)>!

Posted By Richard A. Ekstedt : September 17, 2010 5:04 pm

Glenn Strange, as I understand it, played the Frankenstein Monster again opposite Abbot And Costello on the Colgate Comedy Show in a segment where Lou meets The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Also, in 1963, Glenn played the monster in writer Don Glut’s amatuer film serial “THE ADVENTURES OF THE SPIRIT”: Chapter Four-”FRANKENSTEIN’S FURY”. In the late 1950s, from Noon to Midnight, Glenn wore the makeup under a clown costume and mask was perched on the 150 foot radio mast at KTLA in LA. Listeners were given clues as who the clown was and when it was time to take the mask off, the unmasker came face to face with the Frankenstein Monster (who threw a dummy off the top of the building)>!

Posted By Rick Johnson : September 17, 2010 7:05 pm

A charming, touching essay. All those horror films are like old friends to me – I know them so well. And I was 6’4″ in High School with enormous feet and weighed 125 lbs. so I can relate even further to what you wrote.

Posted By Rick Johnson : September 17, 2010 7:05 pm

A charming, touching essay. All those horror films are like old friends to me – I know them so well. And I was 6’4″ in High School with enormous feet and weighed 125 lbs. so I can relate even further to what you wrote.

Posted By John : September 18, 2010 12:17 pm

Glenn Strange is excellent in the 1949 Bowery Boys film, “Master Minds”. Glenn is Atlas the Monster, a werewolf-like creature who switches personalities with Huntz Hall. Seeing the hulking Strange imitate Hall’s mannerisms is hilarious.

Posted By John : September 18, 2010 12:17 pm

Glenn Strange is excellent in the 1949 Bowery Boys film, “Master Minds”. Glenn is Atlas the Monster, a werewolf-like creature who switches personalities with Huntz Hall. Seeing the hulking Strange imitate Hall’s mannerisms is hilarious.

Posted By suzidoll : September 18, 2010 6:56 pm

Such an odd name–Glenn Strange–but suitable considering the roles he played. Nice tribute.

Posted By suzidoll : September 18, 2010 6:56 pm

Such an odd name–Glenn Strange–but suitable considering the roles he played. Nice tribute.

Posted By Robert : September 19, 2010 5:09 pm

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading the Bob Burns / Tom Weaver book “Monster Kid Memories” was the stories pertaining to Glenn Strange, a man Burns was close friends with for a good many years. The affection he held for him is obvious, and Strange – for all of the ghoulish shivers he helped induce portraying the Monster – is depicted as being a gem of a guy.

Posted By Robert : September 19, 2010 5:09 pm

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading the Bob Burns / Tom Weaver book “Monster Kid Memories” was the stories pertaining to Glenn Strange, a man Burns was close friends with for a good many years. The affection he held for him is obvious, and Strange – for all of the ghoulish shivers he helped induce portraying the Monster – is depicted as being a gem of a guy.

Posted By Richard Sutor : September 22, 2010 10:06 pm

Let’s not forget it was Glenn Strange who played Butch Cavendish in the first three episodes of The Lone Ranger. Cavendish was the “mastermind” who set up the ambush leading to the killing of all but one of the ambushed rangers.

Posted By Richard Sutor : September 22, 2010 10:06 pm

Let’s not forget it was Glenn Strange who played Butch Cavendish in the first three episodes of The Lone Ranger. Cavendish was the “mastermind” who set up the ambush leading to the killing of all but one of the ambushed rangers.

Posted By Juana Maria : September 23, 2010 1:47 pm

Glenn Strange played Sam the bartender at the Long Branch Salloon on “Gunsmoke”. Also, he is related to the real Pocahontas. Good actor; I enjoy when some of the spotlight gets shone on these fine character actors.

Posted By Juana Maria : September 23, 2010 1:47 pm

Glenn Strange played Sam the bartender at the Long Branch Salloon on “Gunsmoke”. Also, he is related to the real Pocahontas. Good actor; I enjoy when some of the spotlight gets shone on these fine character actors.

Posted By September Links : The Shadow Cabaret : September 25, 2010 5:48 pm

[...] Classic Movies Morlock blogger “rhsmith” offers an affectionate profile of character actor Glenn Strange, the hulking mainstay of countless B Westerns and a handful of classic horror [...]

Posted By September Links : The Shadow Cabaret : September 25, 2010 5:48 pm

[...] Classic Movies Morlock blogger “rhsmith” offers an affectionate profile of character actor Glenn Strange, the hulking mainstay of countless B Westerns and a handful of classic horror [...]

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